SJF • Proper 23c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendent of David — that is my gospel, for which I suffer, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.
In our Scripture readings today we hear of three different kinds of bondage, and also of the paradoxical freedom that transcends bondage in each case.
The situation in which Saint Paul found himself involved bondage in its most literal sense. As he wrote to his young disciple Timothy, he was bound in iron chains, kept under house arrest and unable to move from the inexorable path towards judgment before the imperial tribunal and death by execution — though he would move soon enough.
The Scriptural record of the early church, much of it from Paul’s own hand, cuts off before we reach the end of his story. To hear what happens after the end of Luke’s record in Acts of the Apostles, we must rely on other early historians of the church. They tell us of Paul’s execution in Rome in the days of the Emperor Nero.
But regardless of Paul’s ultimate end, here in this letter to his young disciple Timothy as we have been hearing over the last weeks — here he writes of his imprisonment, the indignity of being chained up like a common criminal. But he uses his situation as an opportunity to contrast the human condition of bondage with the divine freedom of truth. He may be in chains, but the gospel is not chained.
Ironically, Paul’s arrest and imprisonment not only did not stop the gospel from spreading, but actually helped the gospel to spread. This is part of the great paradox of his suffering. For as Paul was ferried from port to port on his journey to Rome, at each stop along the way he preached and shared fellowship with Christians in each place. And later in Rome at last he was given opportunity to witness to the power of the gospel, and make his testimony even in the court of the emperor. There he ultimately achieved the crown of martyrdom, executed by the earthly power of humans, but bearing witness to the heavenly power of God, trusting in those words he wrote to Timothy — “The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”
There is an incident much later in Christian missionary history that bears witness to this truth as well. A group of Europeans in 19th-century Burma were captured by a warlord and placed in prison. Among them was a Christian missionary. The prisoners were hung by chains in a dank prison. One of the other prisoners, a colonial trader, jeered at the missionary, saying, “What do you think your chances are now of converting the heathen!” The missionary answered, “They are just as bright as ever they were, for the light of the Gospel is not quenched — even here.”
My friends, even in the place of bondage, the Christian is free. Think for a moment of the letters that Christians have written from prison: from the time of Paul, writing to Timothy; from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison, facing his own execution, awaiting his death; of the letter from Birmingham Jail, from Martin Luther King — yes, the man may be bound, but his gospel is not bound; it goes forth. And those letters are read to this day, while those who imprisoned those men are long gone and forgotten. Another Martin, for whom Martin Luther King was named, Martin Luther, stated it well in his great hymn: “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.” The bondage of restraint cannot stand against the power of God.
+ + +
Our gospel reading today tells of a different kind of bondage: a bondage not from without but from within. It is true that the lepers whom Jesus heals are freed from the bondage to disease that has kept them cut off from the rest of human society. But the bondage I want to note today in their case is not that external bondage, but rather the inner compulsion that leads one of them, one out of the ten, the Samaritan, to turn back to Jesus, to thank him for healing him. Here we are not dealing with the iron chain of imprisonment, but rather the elastic band of conscience. You know how that works. When you know that you ought to do something that you haven’t done, and that the longer you wait, and the further you get from the thing your conscience is calling you to, the stronger the pull becomes — the elastic band gets harder to pull the further it goes.
With every step that the healed Samaritan takes away from Jesus, the stronger he feels the pull grow, the pull of the need to give thanks. Finally the pull becomes so strong that he snaps right back to the feet of Jesus and falls there, offering his thanks!
The English writer Dorothy L Sayers once observed that “The divine scheme of things... is at once extremely elastic and extremely rigid. It is elastic, in that it includes a large measure of liberty for the creature; it is rigid in that... however created beings choose to behave, they must accept responsibility for their actions and endure the consequences.” This bondage of the conscience — this responsibility for ones own actions — becomes more binding the more you stretch it. The more freely you move, the stronger will be the pull.
And as we see in the story of the healed Samaritan, this is not a negative bondage — this is not a bad thing. In this case it is the bondage of gratitude: when you know you need to give thanks for something, because as even the casual expression puts it, you owe someone thanks. And it is no accident (I remind us in this stewardship season and on this day of the harvest) that it is exactly a tithe — one tenth — of the healed lepers who turns back: one out of ten, one tenth — a tithe.
This reminds us of our own call to give thanks by returning a portion of the abundance with which we have been blessed back to God — to God’s church, for the work of the church, the work of the spread of that ministry here and now — even to realize that somehow we owe God this portion of what we have received — and how some struggle, and how tautly pulled is that particular elastic in some cases! But when we return in faith and thanksgiving to the one to whom we owe that debt of gratitude, we feel the relief of knowing we have done as God wants us to do. Responding to the bondage of duty leads us to the true freedom of thanksgiving.
+ + +
The third form of bondage in our scripture readings today appears in that story of Naaman the Syrian. He too suffers from leprosy, but what seems to hold him in bondage, isn’t the disease himself; it seems to be more his pride — both his personal and his national pride. When the messenger from the prophet asks him to do a simple thing to free himself from the bondage of leprosy, to dip himself in the River Jordan, his personal and national pride stand in the way. He doesn’t want a messenger — he wants the prophet himself! He doesn’t want a to be told just to take a dip in the river, he wants a ritual; he wants a ceremony; after all, he is an important person! He deserves it! And he protests that the rivers of his homeland are better than all the waters of Israel. It takes the wise words of his servants to put him back on the right track: if you’d been asked something hard you would have done it; why not do what is simple? This wise counsel finally frees him from his bondage of pride and nationalism — and he takes those dips in the river, and he is healed of his disease, with his skin like that of a child.
Three forms of bondage — two negative and one positive — are set before us today. May we too, my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, when constrained by bondage beyond our control find the freedom of the Gospel; when healed of our ills give generously in response to the bondage of gratitude; and when challenged to do what is simple, released from the bondage of pride, and trust that God knows best what to ask of each and every one of us, and that God will be true in imparting gracious blessings, when we do as we are bid.+